For Tiger and Phil, a trip ’round Amen Corner unlike any other in Tuesday’s practice round

April 3, 2018

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta Country Club directly abuts Amen Corner, sitting just a pitch shot through the trees from Augusta National’s most famous stretch. The Club Next Door is comparatively quiet during Masters week, but just after 9 a.m. on Tuesday, with the sun’s rays still interrupted by the Georgia pines, there was a rustling in the azaleas behind the 11th green at the National, where several men weaved their way through the woods.

It’s possible the group were enterprising (and stealthy!) members of Augusta’s famed grounds crew, but given the scene it seemed far more likely these were extra security, moving to secure the perimeter. Their concern was understandable: The tournament’s two biggest draws were coming through the world’s most famous stretch of holes. Who wouldn’t consider a little trespassing from the adjacent country club’s fairways to sneak a peak?

Tuesday morning’s buzz exceeded any typical practice round day: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the same practice round group? As partners? It would have been unthinkable during the height of the pair’s icy rivalry. But although Tiger and Phil are among the favorites at this year’s Masters — one thing that hasn’t changed over the decades — their Tuesday morning hits-and-giggles session was the latest sign that the golf world has turned upside down.

“I never thought I’d see the day,” Rory McIlroy said in his afternoon press conference with a grin. “Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta.”

Mickelson has long been famous for his Tuesday games, but Woods (to the best of our knowledge) has never shown interest in joining. His presence is a sign of the times, of a chummier Woods, and perhaps also of the pull of Fred Couples, Augusta’s ageless wonder, who played with Woods on Monday and again joined on Tuesday. Thomas Pieters rounded out the group, the lanky Belgian serving as mystery fourth.

To hear Woods tell it, the pairing was a simple case of schedules aligning. “Phil was off yesterday, just came in here to register, and he asked Joey if we were free for a game,” he said. “And we were free yesterday, but he was taking the day off. So Phil and I talked about it and decided to play today.”

Woods and Mickelson paired up to take on Couples and Pieters, and any frostiness between Woods and Mickelson felt like ancient history as they crested the hill on No. 11, the two talking animatedly with Mickelson’s caddie (and brother) Tim.

“They’ve never really disliked each other,” Couples said afterwards. “And they probably aren’t best of friends, but they’re friends…and they want to beat each other up.”

Mickelson made it clear that he enjoyed the pairing. “I do find him very enjoyable to be around, and we had a great time today playing together, and I hope that we have a chance to do it more.”

The contrast between the two was as clear as ever: Woods marched ahead purposefully, efficiently, looking sleek in a blade-collared white Nike shirt. Mickelson had selected a frumpy checkered button-down which, coupled with a coffee mug in hand, gave the impression of a man who had swung by the tournament on the way to his nine-to-five. “I always give him a little bit of grief about that, “Woods said. “The only thing that was missing was a tie.”

Mickelson’s play on 11 was no better than his look; his tee shot settled in the woods right of the fairway and the draw he tried to hit from the pine straw didn’t draw, instead splashing in the pond left of the green. Woods had missed the fairway in a similar spot but tried a safer approach, punching a low, skipping iron along the dewy fairway down short of the green. They lost the hole, as Couples and Pieters two-putted for pars.

The group spent time studying each green but particularly the area the the right of the 11th, which is a popular bailout destination for approach shots. From there the foursome made their way to the 12th tee, which was relatively tame in the still morning air. Dozens-deep galleries who had dusted off their digital cameras for the day (phones are banned during practice rounds) fired off snaps of the action as the group approached the 12th tee.

Woods ended up in the front bunker, the other three players had good looks for birdie. The swarms had already moved on to get in position on the 13th hole by the time the pair crossed Rae’s Creek; Woods’s nearly-holed bunker shot went largely unnoticed. And then the fireworks started. “We were two up after two,” Couples said afterward, “and then it didn’t go so well after that.”

The pair matched tee shots on No. 13, with Woods’s draw three-wood rolling out some 10 feet past Mickelson’s, each wrapped around the corner in perfect position on the left side of the fairway. They walked together down the 13th fairway, Mickelson jovial, gesticulating, Woods laughing along.

“Our friendship has gotten stronger over the years,” Woods said, citing Mickelson’s support during his injury as one factor in the pair’s relationship. “And I think it’s just age as well. We’re at the tail end of our careers, we both know that. He’s 47, I believe, and I’m 42, and we have had a great 20‑year battle, hopefully we’ll have a few more. But we understand where we are in the game now versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who is going to be No. 1, and that was then and certainly this is now.”

Couples was first to play on No. 13, from further back in the fairway, and hit a low hook with his three-wood that was lucky just to escape the left trees. Pieters was next, and hit a glistening iron shot from the pine straw — a Mickelson special — directly at the flag, settling just short on the fringe. Mickelson rifled his own approach shot up the middle of the green, where it just trickled over. And then there was Woods, whose approach was highest, softest, and best, staying straight even off a hook lie; his ball landed just left of the pin and came to a stop some 15 feet past the hole. The digital cameras snapped away.

When Woods arrived at his eagle try, he studied it intently, then touched it down the slope. From a distance, it looked as though the ball had come to a stop just short of the hole — but then it disappeared, and something familiar happened: a Tiger Woods fist pump, and a cheeky grin to the crowd, whose roars echoed through the pines and across the rest of the course.

Two holes later, Woods did it again: another eagle after launching a glorious long iron from the sloping fairway at 15 that came to rest five feet below the hole. He followed that with by sticking his approach on 16 to kick-in range for another birdie. “Tiger was brilliant,” Pieters said.

Mickelson, not to be outdone, went on a run of his own: the 47-year-old birdied five holes in a row on the back (13-17).

“We partnered up and had some fun,” Mickelson said. “Watching him eagle 13 and 15, and I made a few birdies in there. We had a five‑hole stretch where we were 7‑under: that was some fun play.”

Couples was duly impressed. “They certainly enjoyed beating us badly,” he said. “Come Sunday, they may be paired together.”